Severo Sarduy (1937-1993), celebrated Cuban poet, fiction writer, playwright and literary critic. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 Sarduy managed to achieve a grant to study art in Paris, although never considering himself to be an exile or an immigrant he became a French citizen but is quoted as saying “I am a Cuban through and through, who just happens to live in Paris”, unfortunately he never returned to his native Cuba, dying as a result of complications from AIDS in 1993.
His obituary in “The Independent” says that in a 1986 interview Sarduy declared “I write only in order to make myself well. I write in an attempt to become normal, to be like everybody else, even though it’s obvious I am not. I am a neurotic creature, a prey to phobias, burdened with obsessions and anxieties. And instead of going to a psychoanalyst or committing suicide or abandoning myself to drink and drugs, I write. That’s my therapy.” The same article also quotes his as saying “Language, the desire to give life to things through words, is what makes us human.”
And “language” is the striking point as soon as you enter the world of Firefly, from page one, rich with such depth, you feel that every single word is of value, there is not a single shred of wastage here, a meticulous use of style, which can be challenging throughout, however I imagine nowhere near as challenging for us as readers compared to Mark Fried the translator.
Around a fountain, as if drawn by its cool waters, the feverish patients lie under archways on wobbly cots with no more accoutrements than a few mosquito nets of course tulle rolled up on spindles during the day and unfurled at night to reach the brick floor.
Beside the beds stand large copper pitchers for their ablutions, as well as bowls, enema hoses, white ceramic jars with green unguents, a sieve of vein-hungry leeches swimming over one another, and an archipelago of cotton swabs stained with pus, saliva, and blood. Farther off, an amphora of wine. A crystal vase with an iris.
Muscular nuns with ruddy cheeks and severe mannerisms make their rounds under the archways in a perpetual scurry and always in the same direction, collecting refuse and tendering salves and consolation, or little wool sacks with camphor stones, which they slide brusquely under the pillows.
Carefully, they close the eyes of the moribund and tie their jaws up with white cloths so that rigor mortis will not catch them by surprise; they give the thirsty salt to suck; they oblige those suffering boils or anemia to gulp a gelatinous and searing fish soup, which they shove at them with an enormous wooden spoon.
So heavily starched are the edges of their polyhedral cornets that the patients fear getting sliced open when the nuns go rushing by, busy as leaf-cutter ants throughout the night.
Our title Firefly is our protagonist, a melon headed child “his story was a frayed tapestry with no apparent pattern, seen in a dream”. He appears to us sitting on a chamber pot that shatters. It is hurricane season and what does Firefly witness that is so shocking that he can’t describe the events? All he can do is lace the family’s tea with rat poison.
A novel filled with interesting terms and references…precocious catalepsy….familial oneiromancy….a character named Munificence…the colours, smells, habits of a vibrant Cuba. We have slaves, sugar cane workers, whores, health professionals with dubious backgrounds, the images almost evoking a voodoo style Haiti instead of Cuba.
Nearly each of the twelve chapters contains rich descriptions of clothing styles, vibrant silks, detailed headdress, and large earrings.
The aunts: all in shining silk. There must be some baptism to attend, or a small parish celebration. They gleam so in the noonday sun that you have to squint to look at them. That isn’t all: crocodile-leather high heels with red platforms and over their shoulders see-through handbags like round canteens for a thirsty outing.
The make-up is simple: a bit of powdered eggshell does it, plus a purple touch of Mercurochrome on the lips.
This is basically a coming of age story, but Firefly is no Eucrid Eucrow from Nick Cave’s “And The Ass Saw The Angel”, nor William Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, although dreamlike, magic realism and vibrant in language throughout, our Firefly is still a lost soul, pining for his first love, out of place under Munificence’s care where everything is not munificent, sexually aware at a young age through the efforts of whores of dubious character. This is a David Lynchesque nightmare, with bizarre rituals containing virgins and suddenly a “flat screen tv”. Is Firefly Cuba itself?
Firefly then contemplated the city from another window.
The sky was leprous. Humidity and heat, like acid, had corroded the soaring facades piled upon one another; purple peelings, like scabs or oozing cankers, curled from broken lintels, triangular porticos, and cracked volutes. On the sagging roofs nested seabirds, speckled lizards with spiny tails, raucous macaws, and mesmerized cats, indifferent to the hordes of rodents.
Making his way down the winding cobblestone alleys, amid the cries of washerwomen and the scurrying of pickpockets and children, was an emaciated blond teenager, long-haired, barefoot, and bearded, wearing a violet-and-gold cape and hauling a wooden cross. With his right hand he held up a sign: crude red letters announced the apocalypse and called on the pope to reveal the prophecies of Fatima.
Heading in the other direction, unperturbed by the prediction, was a stout black man, his muscled chest shining with sweat, as if swathed in dusky silk, under the weight of the casket on his back.
The geometries of windows, semicircular arches held by slight copper frames, stood out in the fractured walls above doorways splayed permanently open. Scarlet, lime-green, mustard, and amethyst windowpanes projected daubs of color onto the tiled floors of darkened rooms, deforming their polished checkerboards of floral motifs and sweeping still lifes.
On one façade, above a trim of broken tiles and alongside a stucco niche containing a hairless and bloodied Christ with slanty eyes – a relic of Macao – a few tarnished gold letters remained.
Clothes floated on lines; flapping in the hot wind that presaged a storm were mended handkerchiefs, yellowing lace bedcovers, sliver dresses, dazzling rags fit for welcoming an orisha’s descent or for leading a sumptuous procession.
From afar came the sounds of raucous jingle bells, off-key horns, and damp maracas from some fiesta; a strong aroma wafted in: grated coconut with butterscotch.
Downstairs, Firefly thought he heard something like the stumbling of a drunk. Then the big bolt opening. And the slamming of the door.
The wind blew hard. The rain had begun.
He understood then that he was expecting someone, but was convinced that no one was going to come.
With a limited background in Cuban history, this is a difficult novel to decipher (for example, were flat screen tv’s around when Sarduy wrote this in 1990? Or is that simply a fancy of the translator?). The style is something to behold and the evocations of a humid vibrant place come to the fore throughout. I chose this novel as part of Spanish Literature Month and will be moving straight onto “Dirty Havana Trilogy” by Pedro Juan Gutierrez for a different view of Cuba.